By Jacqueline Hyman
When most Americans think of the president, they don’t immediately think of the politician’s religion. However, it has played into the elections, in which there has never been a Jewish commander-in-chief.
Many of the early presidents were some type of Protestant Christian, although many did not include religion in their administrations. There were even some seemingly unique branches of Christianity in the mix, such as Dutch Reformed president Martin Van Buren and Disciples of Christ president James Garfield.
However, certain religions and denominations have a much harder time making their way to the top of the executive branch than others. The first settlers in the U.S. were Protestant, and although there is no official U.S. religion, this and similar branches of Christianity have historically been the norm in politics.
John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president, and has been the only one since. Before Kennedy, only one Catholic had ever clinched the presidential nomination, and his campaign was uprooted by rumors that he would make Catholicism the official religion of the U.S. and connect the White House and the Vatican by tunnel, according to the JFK library’s website. More recently, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney would have been the nation’s first Mormon president if he had won the election.
There has never been a Jewish president, or a Muslim one for that matter. And though this is unsurprising, considering the general stigma against Atheism, there has never been an Atheist president. So why, in a country that boasts freedom of religion, has Christianity dominated politics? Does religion play a large part in who gets elected, not only as president but to Congress as well?
Currently, out of 435 members of the House of Representatives, only 23 are Jewish, which is actually an increase from 19. Eight out of 100 U.S. senators are affiliated with Judaism. One of those senators is Bernie Sanders, who was probably the closest to becoming the first Jewish president. Sanders even made history by becoming the first Jew to ever win a presidential primary. But he did not get the Democratic nomination. This is not to say that he lost because he is Jewish, but it has been much harder for candidates who do not fall under a “traditional” presidential religion to get nominated or win.
The tough part is appealing to the Christian majority in this country, especially during the presidential election. While most voters may not intentionally freeze out a candidate due to religion, they feel connected to candidates who share similar views. “Separation of church and state” feels like a loose term when during debates and speeches, candidates talk about how their religious views impact feelings about issues such as abortion and the death penalty.
Of course, each person is entitled to his or her own opinion, but the religious background behind those opinions is what resonates with a large portion of voters. That background is hardly ever anything besides some form of Christianity — and even so, Sanders never used his religion to defend his positions. He felt how he did as a human being, and did not feel the need to bring Judaism into the light as some sort of ploy for voter approval.
President Barack Obama is not Muslim. But the idea that he might be shouldn’t be a reason for people to insult him or disregard him as a legitimate president, because an individual of any religion can be the U.S. president. Unfortunately, the stereotypes attached to these less prominent religions can play into voters’ feelings about candidates.
Last night, Donald Trump became our new president-elect. He was raised Protestant. This should not be a defining factor of the presidency, but eventually, the American people should muster up the courage to elect someone in a historically less popular religion. The different perspective could be good for us.
Jacqueline is a junior journalism and English major. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.